What Is Windows 11 SE and Why Is It a Chromebook Challenger?

What Is Windows 11 SE and Why Is It a Chromebook Challenger?
At first glance, Windows 11 SE looks a lot like Windows 11. (Image: Microsoft)

Windows 11 has been available to install since last October, and its first major update is already on the way. But Microsoft also released another OS, Windows 11 SE, which looks like Windows 11 and shares some common features, but there are also a slew of differences that separate Windows 11 SE laptops from their full Windows 11 counterparts.

Your first question is probably: What does SE stand for, exactly? Microsoft hasn’t been specific, though it might stand for Special Edition, Second Edition, Student Edition, or Simple Edition. What we do know is that it’s officially described as a “cloud-first operating system that’s optimised for use in classrooms, grades K-8.”

If you think that sounds a lot like Chrome OS, you’re not wrong. A recent slump in sales aside, Chromebooks have proved hugely popular for education, with their cheap prices, straightforward operation, and built-in, always-on security. Chromebooks are also easy for administrators to manage, which helps in schools.

Windows 11 SE follows this blueprint, and indeed you can’t buy it or install it yourself — it has to be purchased preinstalled on a laptop, and it’s only available through educational channels. It was announced first on the $US250 ($347) Surface Laptop SE in November 2021, and other hardware partners are now releasing their own Windows 11 SE devices, too.

The Surface Laptop SE was the first device announced running Windows 11 SE. (Image: Microsoft)The Surface Laptop SE was the first device announced running Windows 11 SE. (Image: Microsoft)

Essentially, you can think of it as a stripped-down version of Windows 11 that offloads more work to the cloud and a remote administrator. The optimizations that Microsoft has put in place mean the operating system can run on less powerful hardware, which in turn means cheaper hardware.

You get Microsoft Office bundled with Windows 11 SE, plus Minecraft Education Edition, OneNote, Teams, and all the standard Windows 11 tools (file management and syncing is handled via OneDrive). Whether or not you can install any additional software isn’t up to you, it’s up to whichever admin is in charge of your device.

Microsoft specifies six types of application that can be installed on Windows 11 SE: content-filtering apps, test-taking apps, accessibility apps, classroom communication apps, “essential” diagnostic and management apps, and (perhaps surprisingly) alternative web browsers besides Microsoft Edge. For now though, the only alternative browser to make the approved list is Chrome.

If your educational institution needs access to an app on Windows 11 SE that isn’t already available, there is the option to put in a request for Microsoft to add it. However, programs won’t get approval if they’re available as a web app, or if they don’t fall into the categories of application that we listed above.

Windows 11 SE has its own set of settings and its own wallpaper. (Image: Microsoft)Windows 11 SE has its own set of settings and its own wallpaper. (Image: Microsoft)

Web apps can also be accessed, with documents saved and synced to the cloud by default. The Office apps still work offline though, with changes uploaded once an internet connection is restored. Microsoft Edge will have support for Google Chrome extensions turned on by default, which isn’t the case on the standard Windows 11 — perhaps a nod to those wanting to move over from Chrome OS.

There are a few tweaks to the layout and operation of Windows 11 in the SE version. Snap layouts are simplified, and the widgets are removed, and programs open in maximized mode by default. As you would expect, the Settings panel gets trimmed down as well. The idea is to minimise the number of potential distractions, and the number of things that might go wrong.

Microsoft is highlighting the accessibility features that have been retained from Windows 11, and which should give even more students the opportunity to use Windows 11 SE, while also promoting benefits for educators: the option to monitor learning progress, plan activities and workloads, grade students, and more.

“We have heard from educators that they need options that are simpler, secure and that work on more affordable devices,” wrote Microsoft’s Paige Johnson, vice president of education marketing.

Windows 11 SE is designed for students and educators (Image: Microsoft)Windows 11 SE is designed for students and educators (Image: Microsoft)

“Windows 11 SE was designed and built during the pandemic to address the most fundamental challenges that schools will face in the blended learning world. It brings performance enhancements that optimise resources on low-cost devices to deliver more comprehensive learning experiences and is simple to deploy and manage,” Johnson said.

Windows 11 SE works with some of Microsoft’s various admin tools, including Windows Autopilot and the cloud-based management tool Microsoft Intune, so higher-ups can keep tabs on program and website access, and run controlled environments for scenarios like exams and assessments. Multiple users and devices can be set up together, which is useful for classrooms.

This might all sound similar to Microsoft Windows 10 S, and indeed it is — but this feels like it’s been better thought through, and represents an even more comprehensive commitment from Microsoft to a scaled-down operating system for education. Whether or not it can make a dent in Chromebook sales remains to be seen.

The Surface Laptop SE gives you an idea of the low-spec hardware required to run Windows 11 SE: It comes with an 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768 resolution screen, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of on-board storage. Those are specs that Windows 11 might struggle with, but the more lightweight, cloud-focused SE edition runs fine.

Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.